'2 Dope Queens': TV Review

Yas, Queens. Yas.
2/2/2018

Jessica Williams and Phoebe Robinson adapt their popular '2 Dope Queens' podcast into a four-part HBO special that will probably leave fans clamoring for more.

When Jessica Williams departed The Daily Show in 2016, panic was rampant that her exit would doom the beloved series and, if she had to leave, there was some frustration that the popular correspondent wasn't being slotted immediately into a new late-night offering.

Prophesies of the demise of The Daily Show may have been ill-founded — Trevor Noah is captaining an underrated vessel these days — but expect the second set of rumbles to begin again with the premiere of HBO's four 2 Dope Queens specials, starting Feb. 2. A television expansion of Williams' and Phoebe Robinson's wildly popular podcast, HBO's 2 Dope Queens plays as nothing less than an extended audition for a talk show or comedy showcase that you're going to be upset isn't airing weekly, or even nightly, in perpetuity.

Awareness of the 2 Dope Queens podcast, which launched in 2015, isn't necessary for the specials, filmed in front of a rapturous audience at Kings Theatre in Brooklyn. You also don't need to know Williams' Daily Show work or her 2017 Sundance breakout film The Incredible Jessica James, nor anything about Robinson's writing, stand-up comedy or myriad TV appearances. Just know that they're friends, co-writers on these specials with Amy Aniobi, and they play off of each other with enthusiasm, generosity and true amusement, as if they're having as much fun together as the listeners or viewers are having.

The specials have been divided into four themed hours, each directed by Tig Notaro, a friend of the podcast. Critics were sent the "New York" and "Hair" episodes, but I'll have to wait for the installments on "Hot Peen" and "Blerds." Yes, "Blerds" refers to "black nerds," because Williams and Robinson refer to each other as "Coco Khaleesi" and they'd surely be dropping endless Game of Thrones references even if their specials weren't airing on HBO. And "Hot Peen" is a reminder that these Dope Queens may make all ages laugh, but they aren't to be watched as a family unless you want to blush. Phoebe and Jessica are sassy and raunchy and geeky and unapologetic.

Making use of a stage decorated to look like a Brooklyn rooftop, complete with ventilation silos, a BBQ and a number of uncomfortable stools, Williams and Robinson stick to a somewhat strict structure in the two specials I watched. The women riff on the subject matter in personal and jokey ways, making time for celebrations of Solange and extended America's Next Top Model gags along the way. In "New York," that means stories of cramped apartments and subway masturbators. In "Hair," it means tales of problematic past styling choices, a celebration of certain bald men and, unconnected, Living Single. "How dare yo ass drag me in front of a majority white people situation," Williams jokingly reproaches Robinson in the first episode and both women are constantly aware that their comedy is specific, but also inclusive for the live and HBO audiences.

Both episodes also feature big-name guests who not-so-coincidentally have HBO ties. Williams' Daily Show mentor Jon Stewart appears in the first episode to taste test cold pizza and remember times Williams made him feel old, while Sarah Jessica Parker has rarely been more likable than in her attempts to ask questions about black hair without sounding stupid in the second episode.

Each episode also includes stand-up from three up-and-coming figures, including the increasingly ubiquitous Aparna Nancherla and Take My Wife star Rhea Butcher doing great sets in the "Hair" episode. I'm only slightly aware of Michelle Buteau, whose "New York" appearance made me laugh hard, and I'd never heard of Fresh Off the Boat scribe Sheng Wang, whose "Hair" set had me thinking hard about the plight of finding oneself with too many avocados.

"New York" and "Hair" both clock in at under an hour and neither has any filler, unless you tire of hearing them say "Yas Queen Yas," but if you have that problem, you probably won't last very long anyway. Both Williams and Robinson are ridiculously busy and it doesn't seem like HBO is necessarily viewing these specials as a prototype for something more regular, but if it were, I won't be opposed.

Cast: Jessica Williams and Phoebe Robinson, with special guests including Jon Stewart and Sarah Jessica Parker
Writers: Jessica Williams, Phoebe Robinson and Amy Aniobi
Director: Tig Notaro
Airs: Friday nights in February, 11:30 p.m. ET/PT (HBO)

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